Editor’s preface: Timothy and I first talked about the “STATE” of soccer in Washington while sitting in the bleachers at a Kitsap Pumas match. He said he had been working on some ideas about structure. Just a few months later both of us were part of an initial group of founders of the Evergreen Premier League. Now Timothy is sharing a fuller view of his ideas. While these should not be misconstrued as the ‘official plans’ of the EPLWA, they certainly are food for thought. —-David Falk
by Timothy S. Hamilton, EPLWA Branding Manager
Denmark is my hero. Not just because of Legos, cheese danishes, and Hans Christian Andersen. They are a footballing nation to rival any on earth. They can boast winning both the EURO Cup and the Confederations Cup, as well as picking up three Olympic silver metals and a bronze. If that doesn’t sound too impressive, that’s one Confederations Cup and four Olympic metals more than the USA. Denmark also has an average world ranking of 17 since 1993. Again, that’s a full two places higher than the USA’s average ranking of 19. Still not impressed? Denmark has a population of 5.6 million. That’s 1.3 million less than Washington state.
Click to enlarge.
So how does a population smaller than Washington compete at a higher level than the USA? Simply put: they play a lot of football. Denmark has one of the most extensive domestic leagues in the world. The Superligaen may not be La Liga, Seria A, or the Premiership; yet the equivalent of one-fourth of the nation’s population attended the league last season. There isn’t a league in the USA that wouldn’t kill to say that. Yet the strength of Denmark’s football doesn’t just come from a strong first division. Below the Superligaen is series of increasingly more localized divisions connected via promotion/relegation. It is a seamless league from the rec level to the top professional level. That’s common around the world, except in the USA. All told, there are 2,383 teams playing in the Danish league. Between them they field some 511,000 players, over a fourth of the nations adult male population.
Impressive. Most impressive. But this is Washington, not Denmark. Enter the EPLWA, Washington’s first step into a larger soccer world. The league will début in 2014 with 8-10 teams competing in the first season. The formation of this league is a milestone for a number of reasons. First of all, it provides a valuable stepping-stone between rec leagues and national leagues. Not just for players, but for coaches, referees, and for clubs themselves. Right now the gap is astronomical. The EPLWA will close that gap on either side. Clubs, players, coaches, and referees will have a much easier time going from rec leagues to the EPLWA and from the EPLWA to a national league than they would trying to go straight to a national league. It will in a sense be a breeding ground from clubs and talent; a chance to prove themselves at a more competitive level. The league will also give a chance for many who probably wouldn’t continue their footballing careers to keep going. There is a lot of talent being wasted in this state simply because there aren’t enough opportunities to play competitively. The EPLWA will give late-bloomers and undiscovered talent a second chance. The league also gives supporters all around the state the opportunity of watching teams that represent their community. Communities which would otherwise need to support a team across the state, possibly in a rival community, or no team at all will finally have a team of their own. This will grow and cultivate supporter culture throughout the state. In short, the EPLWA is the first step towards making Washington a true soccer state.
Click to enlarge graphic of four-division idea.
But it shouldn’t end there. The EPLWA is an important first step, but it is only a first step if soccer, and the EPLWA, want to be successful in this state. The strength of Denmark’s football prowess comes not only from the Superligaen but the structure of the lower division. The EPLWA will struggle over time without lower divisions to support it. In the first place, having new teams promoted and poorly performing teams relegated will keep the league from getting stagnant and predictable. Not only that, but it will increase competition in the bottom half of the table as teams fight for their lives. Secondly, it will provide a larger player pool for teams to choose from. Scouts will be able to watch lower division games and bring the best players into the EPLWA. Thirdly, it lets the best teams rise to the top over time. Teams that are poorly managed or can’t field competitive teams will drop. It always will allow the EPLWA to be populated with the best semi-pro teams in the state, not just the ones who signed up for the league first. Lower divisions will also give current rec and youth teams, or brand new teams, the opportunity to take smaller steps into the world of semi-pro soccer.
So what could the future of Washington soccer look like? Here’s one idea. And it can be implemented step by step. First step is the EPLWA, as I’ve already mentioned. The second step is to create a second division that is split into two divisions. For now let’s call them EPL WEST and EPL EAST. Teams would only play against teams in their division to minimize travel expenses and keep the cost of running the clubs down. At the end of each season the top teams of EPL WEST and EPL EAST enter a promotion playoff for a spot in next season’s EPLWA. Below this second division would be a third division, let’s call it the Evergreen Counties League (ECL), and it’s broken into six divisions. Again, each ECL division would be more local thus eliminating travel and keeping costs lower. Like the second division the top teams of each ECL division would playoff for a promotion spot in the EPL WEST or EAST. Below that would be the rec leagues, with the winners of each league earning the right to playoff for a promotion spot in the ECL division above them. Of course, in addition to promotion the worst team in each division would be sent down a level. This would create a seamless system of leagues within the state of Washington; a first for any state in the USA.
How the EPLWA develops over the next few years is, of course, largely up to the clubs, players, and supporters. But there is no reason Washington can’t build a system like that of Denmark over time. If it can, Washington will enjoy a strong and healthy soccer league for years to come, and could become my new hero.